Helen McAllister interview: Dragging my heels
Helen McAllister has a PhD in Practice-based Design and an MA in Embroidered Textiles from the National College of Art and Design in Ireland. She specialises in creating ‘shoe form’ textile art. We were introduced to Helen’s unique body of work by one of our interviewees and a truly innovative artist Nigel Cheney.
What really rings out in our interview with Helen is how feelings of inadequacy and an initial pattern of inaction can lead to really inspirational and original work.
A light-bulb moment
TextileArtist.org: What initially captured your imagination about textile art?
Helen McAllister: I could do it! Actually to be more accurate the answer is to be found in the next question.
What or who were your early influences and how has your life/up bringing influenced your work?
It was a light-bulb moment but a rather bizarre one. I had not been very good at anything at school (as my brother once remarked ‘you weren’t even any good at art at school’). However, when I was 16 we got a new art teacher. This particular teacher gave off a sense of not wanting to be there; when she was leading senior classes she would not teach but do her own work for up and coming shows. Ironically her embroidery was what really inspired me. I embroidered for my O Level and A Level. I did as much embroidery in my foundation year and then moved to an embroidery course. I have never been tempted away from embroidery (I use the term in its widest most contemporary way).
My mother, like most mothers of that generation, was ingenious, resourceful and creative. To use a family saying, ‘she made things out of her head’. She was a great dressmaker and made so many wee things for us. Equally my father was very gifted at making and building. I never felt I was as gifted as them; I couldn’t ever do what they did.
Going it alone
What was your route to becoming an artist?
Even though I did art at school, I found it hard to imagine myself outside of that environment and I couldn’t imagine myself fitting in anywhere. I dragged my heels, but it was my father who gave me the kick I needed when asking me where had I applied to. I said ‘oh, the closing dates have all come and gone’. He asked if I telephoned anywhere to find this out for fact. Of course I hadn’t, and there was one college that had a later closing date than everywhere else. And that was the college I first went to. I consider this ‘fate’. I loved being a student and dreaded the day that I would have ‘go it alone’.
What is your chosen medium and what are your techniques?
Initially my embroidery practice was pictorial, drawings, large-scale wall-hanging, always machine embroidery often using collage fabric grounds. Now it is the reverse; small scale, 3D forms, hand embroidery techniques that use a lot of fabric manipulation, beading and ‘my stitch’ buttonholing.
How would you describe your work and how does your unique textile art form fit within the sphere of contemporary art?
I can answer this with clarity and ease only after many years of trying labels that didn’t quite suit. Now the work I do sits squarely in the Applied Arts and I am a ‘practitioner’ of applied arts.
An epiphany with colour
Tell us about your process and what environment you like to work in?
I work very privately; I am not a lover of demonstrations or showing how I make things. I don’t have a problem teaching processes, but for me, being a maker is an intimate experience with materials. I choose to work at home in my own work place.
What currently inspires you and which other artists do you admire and why?
If my father shaking me to apply to art college was ‘fate’, my source for inspiration is another case of fate stepping in. I won a competition when in my second year at college. It was considered a prestigious award; the Kilkenny Travel Scholarship. I took on a grueling itinerary including Italy, but every single appointment there fell through; it was a disaster! I cried with joy at the thought of returning to Belfast! But it had influenced me enough to inspire everything I did from then on to be based on Italy and I had an epiphany with colour! In less than I year I needed to go back to Italy. I don’t quite know what the draw was. However, it is the single biggest influence not only on my art production, but on me personally. It now spans nearly 30 years. Latterly the focus has been of Venetian contexts.
Tell us about a piece of work you have fond memories of and why?
Because a lot of what I make has a strong Venetian context (including ‘Venetian Water Series’ and ‘Alberoni Beach’), they all transport me there. It’s a kind of escapism. But there is a series of shoes that enmesh Venetian and Belfast roots together.
These shoe forms incorporate glass; a Venetian industry. However, the glass shards were collected from a bombed church in Belfast. At the time I was a foundation art student, going into places with my camera that were forbidden. I stuffed these shards in my pockets, keeping them for years. The shoe forms seemed so apt a way to use them and give them a narrative.
Do you give talks?
I have done and I enjoy doing so. I used to do talks/presentations regularly, but the last few years I’ve been doing this less, sadly for me.
How do you go about choosing where to show your work?
This is a hard one, and doesn’t get easier over the years, especially if the work is changing and wants to engage with new audiences. For many, the notion of showing with other artists using the same medium is a desire. I don’t want my work to be categorized by the materials and techniques I use. I want to sit with other work where the content and theme is what is being addressed, not necessarily the textile art form.
My next challenge is to have solo or installation exhibitions.
Where can readers see your work?
For more information please visit: www.helenmcallister.com
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